Filipino Priests Flock to U.S.


As the U.S. Catholic Church opens its doors to Filipino priests, this situation causes a “brain drain” of sorts in the Philippines. Priests and seminarians go to the U.S., attracted by a package of relocation, scholarships and other perks.

ANAHEIM, California – Some 20,000 Catholic parishioners had their eyes focused on the liturgy of prayer, music and dance that capped the four-day yearly religious education congress at the Arena, main annex of the huge Convention Center here just right beside the Disneyland. For two hours, in the afternoon of April 2, the faithful – among them Filipinos – responded to what appeared to be a well-scripted liturgy, listening to the homily of Cardinal Roger Mahony with his image caught by two giant video screens. The cardinal, who also spoke in Spanish, has recently got the flak from conservatives and rightists for supporting immigrant rights.

Assisting the cardinal were about 15 bishops from California who also led the rites welcoming about 50 members of the “Elect” (new Catholic converts), some of them Latinos and a few Asians and Arabs. As the mass participants raised their hands toward them, the converts were received with a solemn prayer asking God to forgive them for their sins. Just the same, the pomp and pageantry and the scintillating orchestral music somewhat drowned out the religiosity of the whole liturgy.

What struck any parishioner, however, is the prayer incantation by an ensemble of performers in Italian, Spanish, English, Vietnamese, Chinese – and Pilipino. Among the bishops was Oscar Solis, appointed by the Vatican in late 2003 as the first Filipino-American bishop of the U.S. Catholic Church. The archdiocese of Los Angeles, which he heads, sponsored the religious education congress. With five million members, the archdiocese is the second largest in the U.S. The presence of Solis, who hails from Nueva Ecija, inside the modern, circular Arena and that of the big Filipino flock dramatized the increasing role of the Filipino ministry in the U.S. Catholic Church.

Sex scandals

The U.S. Catholic Church continues to be wracked by sexual molestation charges thrown against many priests, causing its credibility particularly in the east coast to slip to its lowest. As a result, a significant number of Catholics have left the church.

Meantime, while the number of cases in child sex abuse went down to 783 in 2005, dioceses, eparchies and religious communities paid out $465 million to settle the charges, $309 million more than in 2004 when there were 1,092 cases. Since 1950, the U.S. church – the richest in the world – has paid more than $1.3 billion on clergy sex abuse-related cases, mostly in settlement to victims, including Filipinos.

Allegations of child abuse, which have dragged even a cardinal in Chicago for his alleged complacency, aggravated the shortage of parish priests in the Catholic Church. In the first half of 2002 alone, about 300 of the 46,000 U.S. priests were relieved of their mission over abuse allegations. On the other hand, many long-time American priests are retiring and recruitment of younger ones is slow. So critical has the scarcity of priests become that in many dioceses some pastors serve two or more parishes. More and more diocese offices are now occupied by lay persons.

The strong position taken by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) against the House immigration bill that criminalizes some 13 million “undocumented immigrants” may yet repair the credibility damage suffered by the church. Whether this will heal the wound and eventually attract recruits to the clergy, however, is yet to be seen.

From Asia and Pacific

For these reasons, the U.S. Catholic hierarchy appears to be counting on the hiring of priests from Asian and Pacific countries – or nationals with the same regional heritage who are born in the United States – so that their church can continue to perform its role and even survive.

Among priests originating from Asia and the Pacific islands, Filipinos account for the biggest group, followed by Vietnamese, Indians, Chinese and Koreans. About 40 Filipino priests serve in one diocese alone in California where there are more than one million Filipino-Americans, at least 85 percent of them Catholics. Ten years ago, there were about 300 Filipino priests, brothers and deacons and 200 nuns in the United States. At present, there should be at least 500 Filipino priests, a Filipino pastor said.

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